This Week in Parliament
TO this concluding week of parliament session the government came with a number of bills in both houses, keeping in view the forthcoming election. The food security bill, already passed in Lok Sabha, was taken up in Rajya Sabha on September 2. On September 3 the prime minister made a statement in Rajya Sabha on the investigation of coal block allocations by the CBI. There was a hue and cry in the house on the issue of missing files, with Sitaram Yechury, leader of CPI(M) group in the house, suggesting that the government must procure the files from the CAG and also file an FIR. On September 5, there was disruption in Rajya Sabha on the resignation tendered by suspended Gujarat police officer D G Vanzara, which exposed encounter killings as an intrinsic policy of the BJP government there. A number of MPs sought a discussion on it but the chair not allowed it. Members from the CPI(M), CPI, SP and JD(U) walked out in protest. ON FOOD SECURITY Sitaram Yechury spoke on the resolution disapproving the food security ordinance before the food security bill could be brought in. He reminded that the first presidential address of this government five years ago had promised to get the food security bill passed within 100 days. Taking up this bill at this late stage created doubts about the government’s intention though it was better late than never. The stated objective of the bill is to provide nutritious and adequate food at affordable prices to the people so that they may live with dignity. It has been said that 67 percent of people would get this right. But five kg of grain per person per month is not sufficient. The government must provide 35 kg grain to every family. In some states, grain is provided free of cost to the poor and in some others at one rupee per kg. Imposing a restriction of Rs 3 per kg through this bill will thus hinder in the process in these states. There is no dearth of money for it but it must be utilised properly. But in the name of fiscal deficit the government has increased the oil prices, thus increasing the prices of food and other essentials. Yechury insisted on having an amendment so that right to food is extended to everyone. While supporting the bill, T N Seema said a lot of apprehensions about this bill remained. India accounts for one third of the hungry people worldwide, but unfortunately these facts have little impact on our policy-makers. If we look at this bill, it is not meant for food security for all. That is our main objection. Irrational exclusion of large sections would lead to food insecurity and worsen the condition of malnourishment in our country. Demanding a universal public distribution system, Seema said Kerala implemented in 1964 a statutory rationing system to provide rice and other essential items to the people. It is a very successful experience. Tamilnadu has a unique public distribution system which is universal. The PDS in not just an outlet to distribute subsidised food to the poor; through it the government can intervene in the market. She demanded deletion of Schedule I, which is about reviewing the grain prices after three years. PENSION BILL Lok Sabha passed the Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority Bill 2011. Speaking on it, Basudeb Acharia, leader of CPI(M) group in Lok Sabha, referred to the impact of neo-liberalism on insurance sector and pension system. While the government must try to overcome the economic crisis which is of its own making, Acharia asked, how can it hit the social security available to workers and employees? As for our pension system, pension is no charity. All the six pay commissions uniformly said pension is an inalienable right of our employees and workers. Clause 20 of the bill says there would be no implicit or explicit assurance of benefit except through a market based product, to be purchased by a subscriber. Employees will have to choose one out of a few schemes. But being mostly uninformed about finance market, subscribers might make wrong choices which would eventually rob them of their pension. Ten per cent is now being deducted from the salary of every employee who has joined after January 1, 2004, and the government contributes another ten per cent. But the fund thus created is to be handed over to fund managers who all, except one, belong to corporate houses. It means public money will be utilised for private purposes. Also, as it is, two categories of employees have been created, with one continuing to enjoy the defined benefits and getting an assured income. But for the other category of employees, ten per cent of their salaries would be deducted, but the government cannot tell how much pension each of them will get after retirement. It depends on market conditions and if the market fails, these employees will lose everything. Creation of two categories of employees also violates article 14 on right to equality. One of the standing committee’s important recommendations has not been accepted: about a mechanism to enable subscribers to be assured of minimum guaranteed returns on their pension so that they do not suffer any disadvantage vis-à-vis others. One of the reasons for introducing the new pension scheme is to reduce the outflow of money. But as per the committee appointed by the sixth pay commission, the outflow of money will now be more than in the earlier scheme. Also, the new scheme has no scope for family pension if an employee dies. There is no scope for gratuity also. So the government should revert to the earlier system of “defined contribution with defined returns,” Acharia demanded. In Rajya Sabha, Tapan Kumar Sen opposed the pension bill, saying the entire trade union movement considers it a great betrayal. The government must take a note of it. He asked: would foreign agents, who have gone bankrupt in their own countries, work for our people’s benefit? The bill was, however, passed in Rajya Sabha. LAND ACQUISITION & COMPENSATION Speaking on the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill 2013, Sitaram Yechury said we are finally going to have a new law on the issue. He demanded that landowners should have not only compensation at the time of acquisition but a share in the increased value of land even after acquisition. There should be proper definition of ‘public purpose' and ‘affected persons.' Arid and semi-arid lands are also producing foodgrains in many parts of India; these cannot be completely excluded. The role of panchayat bodies has to be properly brought into the act, while safeguarding the rights of SCs and STs in land acquisition, particularly of STs in scheduled areas. There is the question of special powers also and the government must assure that it will never invoked them in favour of private owners. While saying that a better vision of the bill is required, Yechury asked that the government must consider the concrete amendments moved by the CPI(M) members. P Rajeeve spoke on the same issue in Rajya Sabha, saying the bill was another gimmick in view of elections. As per this legislation, many of the people losing their lands will not get the claimed benefits. While the bill was sent to the standing committee which submitted a detailed report, the minister was not ready to accept its major recommendations. The member termed clauses 106(1) and 106(2) as against the spirit of the bill and strongly demanded their deletion. The government is trying to create an aura about it, but most of our suggestions on compensation, just rehabilitation and resettlement, prior informed consent and role of panchayats etc have been ignored. Saying that the government was out to acquire land for corporate houses, Rajeeve demanded concrete definition and clear determination of ‘public purpose’ and ‘infrastructure’ for the sake of the largest number of people. As for the provision of urgency, this opens the possibility of misuse of special powers for the sake of private companies. There must also be social impact assessments. Also, as land distribution has not been implemented in major parts of the country, tenants would suffer while they too work on land and should be entitled to compensation. PRICE RISE In Rajya Sabha discussions on Appropriation Bill (No 4) Bill 2013 and abnormal rises in the prices of onion and other essential commodities were clubbed. Taking part in the discussion, Prasanta Chatterjee said the prices are increasing but the BPL figures are declining while the Global Hunger Index reports that India stands 67th out of 79 countries. As the minister admitted, delayed release of stocks and hoarding could be the reasons for higher prices. Petrol and diesel prices are going up, due to the decision to deregulate their prices. This has affected the transportation cost. Farmers and agriculture have been hit hard. The member also talked about handover of natural resources to corporate houses, FDI in retail, etc, and demanded a ban on future trading P Rajeeve said there is no legal backing for Aadhar card though it is mandatory in Kerala for getting LPG subsidy. He also said the free trade agreements are not in the interest of our manufacturing and agrarian sectors. He demanded a rethink on policies in order to control prices. In Lok Sabha, P Karunakaran spoke on the demands for supplementary grants (general) 2013-14. He referred to the serious situation in the country due to neo-liberal policies, slowdown of growth, widening current account deficit, depreciation of currency, high inflation, growing fiscal deficit and lack of employment opportunities etc. The people’s purchasing power is declining, one major reason being lack of adequate jobs. Job losses have become an alarming feature. Real wages are going down. The government says it has not sufficient resources for investment but, surprisingly, it has forgone huge amounts of taxes. As foreign capital, by its very nature, is unstable, it is not wise for us to rely wholly on it. OTHER ISSUES On the Wakf (Amendment) Bill in Lok Sabha, Saidul Haque said it should have been sent to a joint parliamentary committee. He said there should be no alienation of wakf properties by way of sale, gift or exchange, nor any encroachment of wakf properties by anyone, whether public or private. There should be a time-bound survey of wakf properties. Clause 5 says the muttawali should be a citizen of India, but in fact he should also be a permanent resident here. Further, if any person is aggrieved by an order of the board, he should first go to the tribunal and then to the High Court. As regards the proposed amendment empowering the Central Wakf Council to issue directives to the state wakf boards about surveys, maintenance, records, encroachments, irregularity etc, this should be done in consultation with the concerned state governments. Wakf properties should be given on lease for only 15 years for commercial and 30 years for hospital and health purposes. State wakf boards should have elected rather than nominated members and the tribunal too should have only judicial experts. Relevant provisions of Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act 1971 should be incorporated in the bill or, alternatively, states must legislate on their own for the purpose. Haque demanded that wakf properties must be used for development of the Muslim community; the Ranganath Misra committee report implemented; and another committee formed to study the condition of Muslims as five years have passed since the Sachar committee gave its report. While speaking on the defence minister’s statement on relief and reconstruction work in the wake of a natural disaster in Uttarakhand, Saidul Haque congratulated the Indian Army, Air Force, ITBP and Border Road Organisation for doing tremendous work. But it is alarming to see the state government’s callousness about facing the situation. The member referred to how the hydel projects, tunnels to divert the river-flows for these projects and constant blasting of riverbeds have affected the local ecology. Green cover on the hills has been eroded and landslides are now a regular feature in Uttarakhand. But the central government too cannot escape its responsibility. The need of the hour is that there should be development but not at the cost of death and destruction. The prime minister has announced a relief of Rs 1,000 crore. All the CPI(M) members of parliament gave Rs 50 lakh each from the MPLADS, and are ready to donate more for relief and rehabilitation. But the question is: What the home ministry is doing? The centre should provide 70 per cent from the NDRF, and 90 percent in special cases, but it is not doing so. As for performance of the NDMA, the tragedy has exposed its defunct status. The member urged the government to take appropriate action so that such incidents do not recur in future. Supporting the Constitution (One Hundred Twentieth Amendment) Bill 2013 in Rajya Sabha, K N Balagopal said while higher judiciary is very important for the country, many events suggest that it is behaving in an arbitrary manner. There should be a balance between the executive, judiciary and legislature. Those living in an ivory tower cannot decide about the common people’s issues and now they are even banning strikes. They are even saying that those convicted should have no right of appeal. What kind of thinking is this? It needs to be changed. There should also be a national judicial service in the country. The member also talked about the percentage of women, SC and ST people among the judges. Supporting the Constitution (Scheduled Tribes) Order (Amendment) Bill 2013 in Rajya Sabha, P Rajeeve said we should look into the plight of the SC and ST communities, and incorporate the deserving communities into the SC and ST categories. Saying that the Kerala government has failed to protect the scheduled tribes there, Rajeeve urged the minister to visit Attappady where children are dying due to malnutrition and take some steps to solve the problem. The government has referred the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2013 to the parliamentary standing committee for elaborate study. This bill was introduced in Lok Sabha in August 2013. On the concluding day the Lok Sabha passed the Street Vendors (Protection) of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Bill, the Rajiv Gandhi National Aviation University Bill and the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Bill 2012. In Lok Sabha, Saidul Haque raised the issue of plight of nearly 5,000 Sikh farmers in Bhuj district of Kutch who have been declared “outsiders” by the BJP government of Gujarat and are thus facing a threat of eviction.